'Great Suds and Seeds!' Three Full-Length Plays by American Writers
Previous monthly release announcements of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, have primarily highlighted one-act plays. This has not been by design. Although there are hundreds of short works in this digital collection—including farces, comediettas, black sketches, and plays intended for home or private performances—many multi-act plays may also be found. Three longer scripts are highlighted below.
The County Fair: A Comedy in Four Acts
By Charles Barnard and Neil Burgess
Substantial biographical information about Charles Barnard is not readily found. Bartleby.com provides the following: “Barnard, Charles. An American journalist and author; born in Boston, Feb. 13, 1838; died in 1920. His most popular play is ‘The County Fair’ (1888). Author of ‘The Tone-Masters’ (New York, 1871); ‘Knights of Today’ (1881); ‘The Whistling Buoy’ (1887); dramas, and books on gardening and electricity.” The Library of Congress does not reference his playwriting but credits him with a book entitled Mozart and Mendelssohn.
Neil Burgess left a broader swath. He achieved fame as an actor who specialized as a female impersonator usually playing older women. George C. Odell, author of Annals of the New York Stage, 1927-1949 and professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University, said of Burgess: “I still see him as Widow Bedott in the kitchen, making pies, straightening out the affairs of the neighborhood and personifying, in spite of his sex, the attributes of a managing woman. He was not the least bit effeminate, not at all like the usual female impersonator of minstrelsy or of variety, and yet he was widow Bedott to the life, and with little suggestion of burlesque.”
The title page notes that the script had been revised in 1921 by Neilson Burgess. Unusually, the script contains several photographic illustrations, the most compelling of which is Neil Burgess in full drag posing as Abigail Prue in “The County Fair.” Abigail is described in the Cast of Characters as “prim, prudish and practical.” The play is set at Rock Bottom Farm.
Sally and Joel are young people who have been taken under Miss Abby’s wing. They are smitten with one another. As the curtain rises, they are bantering and flirting while stoking the fire and preparing dinner for Miss Abby who is expected. But when she arrives, she is accompanied by a little girl named Taggs who has been sent by train from a New York mission and is carrying a letter to that effect. Abby reads aloud:
Children’s Mission, New York City, March 29.
“Dear Miss Abby:” Turn that lamp up! “It is now some years since I wrote you, but I have not forgotten you and I have always kept up the search for your sister’s lost child.” Poor Mercy. “As I told you before, no trace of the child could be found after she was thrown on the streets by the arrest of Mother Morton; I feel sure she must have been found by some institution and is by this time in some good Christian home.” I certainly trust and pray she is. Oh, my, you don’t imagine she is in State’s Prison?
The letter continues:
Abby. “Just at present, we have more children than we can find homes for, and I venture to send this child to you.” Great suds and seeds! Whatever made them think I wanted children? I’m glad they didn’t send a dozen. “Can you not give her a home, and thus repay in this way all that some one is doing for your lost little one elsewhere? You will find Taggs a bright child, with a good—” Where’s the rest of it? (Looks all over letter.)
Joel. There it is, Miss Abby.
Abby.—“with a good diphtheria?” I wonder if it’s catching? If it is we’ll have it all over the farm. If it isn’t one thing it’s another.
Joel. Why, that ain’t diphtheria, Miss Abby. (Reaches over and takes letter suddenly.)
Abby. What is it?
Joel. That’s disposition.
Abby. Disposition—So it is. Why don’t they write straight? It wouldn’t cost a cent more. “You will find her Sunday-school book in her little bag with a little mark at her last lesson. She has only one fault: She will take things that are not her own.”
Thus, the ground is laid for a series of misadventures, misunderstandings, courtings, accusations, reconciliations and a bit of mayhem.
Lords of Creation: Woman Suffrage Drama in Three Acts
By Ella Cheever Thayer
A part of the suffragette literary movement, Ella Cheever Thayer was born in Maine in 1849. She lived her adult life in Boston supporting herself as a telegraph operator at the Brunswick Hotel which made her writing possible.
The Cast of Characters in “Lords of Creation” is somewhat instructive:
Dr. Endicott, a true Man.
Mr. Grovenor, the Head of his Family.
Eugene, his Son, taking Life easy.
Harold Doughlass, with more Money than Brains.
Jim, a Coachman, much in Love.
Kate Grovenor, who has a Mind of her own.
Lizzie, a young Seamstress.
Mrs. Grovenor, Mr. Grovenor’s lesser half.
Alice Grovenor, anxious for a rich Husband.
Jennie, a Chambermaid who believes in Women’s Rights.
As the play opens, Jennie is alone in an elegant drawing room in the Grovenor’s house.
Jennie. Here is Mr. Eugene’s bouquet, and now where is Mr. Eugene? Not here, of course, and I must be running all over the house to find him. All a body has to do is to wait on him, that is what he thinks! For he is a lord of creation, he is! And he must have his buttonhole bouquet, and his hair parted in the middle, and his mustache waxed, and everybody must bow down and worship him! But after all, he isn’t as bad as his father. Oh! isn’t he just awful! Dear me, what a terrible thing it must be to think yourself so superior, all on account of your sex!
Jim, the coachman enters and begins wooing Jennie who rebuffs his approaches. They argue:
Jim. (gesticulating). But, Jennie, a woman isn’t supposed to know as much as a man. It isn’t natural, you see! But a man likes them all the better for it, and he likes to be looked up to, you know.
Jen. (drawing herself up). You don’t say so! How sorry I am I can’t make you happy in that way. But the fact is, I’d rather have a man who likes me for what I know and not for what I don’t know! So (courtesying [sic]) I’ll leave you to find a woman with less brains than you have—if you can.
Meanwhile, the rest of the house is settled in what appears to be its usual state. Mr. Grovenor, a pronounced hypochondriac, relishes his ill health but is acutely anxious about his business affair and the outrageous bills his wastrel son dumps in his lap. Mrs. Grovenor huddles with her younger, feckless daughter who importunes her to ask Mr. Grovenor for money to buy more dresses. Eugene sleeps in after a late night of debauchery, and Kate (who has a mind of her own) parries two suitors and dreams of freeing herself from the bondage of dependence on her father.
One of Kate’s suitors is Dr. Endicott, the “True man,” who is temperate, supportive, kind and honest. Sadly, he is also poor. Meanwhile, Harold Doughlass, who has more money than brains, heatedly pursues Kate in an affectedly languid manner. Doughlass is a familiar character of that era specifically in his equally affected speech substituting w for r.
Alice (rising). I am delighted to see you, Mr. Doughlass!
Doug. Aw! thank you. You are looking more chawming than ever, Miss Alice.
Alice (aside). He always says that. (Aloud) You quite flatter me. Please be seated. (Offers chair.)
Doug. (sitting, L.). Aw! this has been a fine day, hasn’t it, now?
Alice (sitting, R.). Very fine indeed.
Doug. I hope we shall have as fine to-mowow.
Alice. I hope so, truly.
Doug. But I weally feaw we shall have wain.
Alice. You quite alarm me.
Doug. Aw! I do not like wain.
Doughlass is terrified of Kate but drawn to her. She suffers his attentions. Finally, Eugene goes too far and imperils his family’s well-being and his father’s real health. Kate steps in and effects a positive reversal of fortune. Throughout the play Jennie and Kate have argued for women’s rights: Jennie in her lively courtship and occasional asides and monologues; Kate in temperate but resolute dialogue with her adamant father, timorous mother, and the amiable Dr. Endicott. Some suffrage plays are polemical, some comical, and some melodramatic. “Lords of Creation” is definitely a suffrage play. But it is written with warmth and humor, its arguments are irrefutable, and the writing good. The characters are more than cardboard cutouts. True, the resolution is almost too tidy, but the play is entertaining.
Breezy Point: A Comedy in Three Acts
By Belle Marshall Locke
Belle Marshall Locke was born in 1865 in New Hampshire. She also wrote under the name Nellie M. Locke. She wrote comedies, operas, and ballads. She also taught drama and speech, and directed plays and operas. “Breezy Point” has an all-female cast. Somewhat like “The County Fair” this play is anchored by a benign and generous elderly woman who has taken a parentless child, Elinor Pearl, into her home where the child has grown into a loving young adult.
As the curtain rises, Elinor and Ashrael Grant, a workhouse waif, are preparing Breezy Point to receive four young boarding school girls for the summer. Aunt Debby Dexter is the mistress of Breezy Point. The house is mortgaged and the next payment is due in the autumn. Aunt Debby needs money, and Elinor has conceived of taking in these boarders in order to meet the note. We subsequently learn that Aunt Debby has imperiled herself in order to raise money to rescue her impecunious brother out West.
Elinor. There, Ashrael! (Holding up bouquet.) This will do for the front chamber. You say that you have filled the vases for the other rooms?
Ashrael. Yes, Miss Elinor, I’ve put narsturtimums [sic] in the room at the head of the stairs, sweet peas in the corner room, an’ a mixter in the back chamber.
Elinor. A what?
Ashrael. A mixter. Bein’ as you’re goin’ to put that furrin maid in that room, I thought a mixed bokay would be more ‘propriate for her.
Elinor (laughing). You always had a nice sense of the fitness of things, Ashrael.
Ashrael. Yes, I’m might pertickler about things fittin’; an’ speakin’ of that makes me think, my red bask, that Miss Cuttin’ made, fits like all possessed. I can turn ‘round twice in it; an’ there ain’t much chance of fattin’ up, bein’ as you’re goin’ to have a house full of summer boarders, every one of ‘em high-falutin’ girls, who’ll want some one to dance attendance on ‘em from mornin’ till night.
Aunt Debby is worried that the young ladies will find their isolated home dull, but Elinor reassures her:
Elinor. It will be perfectly delightful to them, Aunt Debby, mark my words! Just think what a humdrum life they must lead at Madame Finikin’s city boarding-school, and what a delight these big meadows, the grove and the lake will be to them!
Contrary to Aunt Debby’s fears, the girls delight in everything. Only Clarice seems low-spirited pining, as she is, for a lost love. They are all charming with the exception of the French maid, Fantine, who is determined to escape her bondage and marry. Not surprisingly, Ashrael takes up against Fantine:
Ashrael. That French maid just makes me sick! I’ll let her know she can’t put upon me! I’ll try to do my level best for those girls, but that critter has jest got to keep out from under my feet!
Ashrael has a suitor, Billy Griffin, to whom she is largely indifferent as she has higher aspirations than a butcher.
Fantine and Ashrael achieve a sort of truce and share confidences. Ashrael reveals that Billy is threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t consent to be his wife. Fantine thinks this is excitingly romantic, and Ashrael does concede that if Billy does kill himself, it will do her credit. Fantine pumps Ashrael for more information about Billy thinking him quite the catch based on Ashrael’s misleading idea of Billy’s occupation.
Mrs. Hardscratch and her twin daughters provide comic notes as the mother grasps for every pecuniary opportunity to be had from Aunt Debby, and the daughters haunt Aunt Debby’s home unable to perform simple tasks but adept at eating everything at hand. The comedy is enhanced when Mrs. Hardscratch’s sister, Mehitible Doolittle, arrives on the scene full of plans for her pending first marriage to the deacon.
Aunt Debby suddenly leaves on a mysterious journey. All of the girls pitch in and have a merry time cooking and cleaning. Fantine steals Billy from Ashrael, her previous employer recruits Ashrael to replace her and plans are made for a trip to Europe to Ashrael’s utter delight. Aunt Debby returns, and all is well.
The play is fun and, at times, quite funny.